Monday, June 15, 1998

Week of 06/15/1998

Target: Patriotism
Beware Of Cheap Imitations
- by David Matthews 2

June 14th was Flag Day. Not that too many people knew it, mind you. This year, the day comes on a Sunday, which means not too many people pay it much heed. People are more apt to spend Sunday in church or out enjoying the weekend. Well, it’s not like the day is a federal holiday. No extravagant parades to mark the day. No special Flag Day discounts for stores.

For my international readers, Flag Day is the day to commemorate the US flag. Like any other country, the flag is a symbol of that country and what it stands for. I’ve carried the US flag with honor in my youth. My father defended what that flag represents when served in the Navy back in the 1960’s, stationed at Guantanamo Bay and on board the USS Joseph Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My family carries a long tradition of men who fought for their country with pride, be it in America or in Great Britain.

So, with this history of respect for the flag and what it represents, it irks me to no end to see it being disgraced.

No, I’m not talking about some protester who decides to burn the flag, or some artist who puts the flag down on the floor to be used as a rug at some art deco studio. I’m not even talking about Monica Lewisnky’s picture in Vanity Fair where she’s reportedly seen posing with an American flag behind her like an open shawl. Rather, I’m talking about an equally insidious bunch of people who bring disgrace to the flag in a way only they can do.

I’m talking about politicians.

Nine years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech also applied to burning the US flag in protest. Almost everywhere, politicians, conservative crusaders, and veterans groups cried bloody murder over this decision. They promised they would enact a new constitutional amendment that would once again prohibit flag desecration.

Now, that amendment is on the verge of finally passing Congress.

Ironically, in passing this amendment, which would prohibit the physical desecration of the flag, Congress will in effect desecrate the flag symbolically. The flag, in and of itself, is a piece of brightly colored cloth. Intricately woven, perfected after two centuries of revisions, but physically no different than any other flag in the world. It’s what that flag represents that makes it so important.

Flags can be destroyed. They can be burned. They can be torn apart. They can tatter, fray, and fade with the course of nature. But what that flag represents cannot be physically destroyed. That ultimate indignity is exclusively reserved for those in government. When political leaders say that the symbol is more important than what it represents, the symbol loses its value.

In Washington DC, a form of physical desecration is at work every day. The US flag flown in Washington during the War of 1812 is dying a slow and painful death. This is the flag that Francis Scott Key saw when he wrote the "Star Spangled Banner." Seeing the flag waving amidst the cannon volleys, smoke, and gunfire inspired him to pen what would be this country’s national anthem. The flag remains on display, sealed in a glass box, for a limited number of bystanders to see for only a few minutes. Yet, despite all the efforts of the federal government to preserve this flag, it is slowly falling apart through natural causes. If it happened with any other US flag, there would be a legion of military veterans who would demand that the flag be properly disposed of. Would this, then, be considered a form of desecration? And if so, who would be at fault, Mother Nature, or Congress?

In the end, however, lies one word - patriotism. How much does one love his or her country? And, more importantly, how sincere are they?

There are plenty of politicians who would use the flag as a noting more than a prop, and patriotism as nothing more than a political buzzword. They rally about what they consider to be mainstream, adhering to principles that would only apply to that narrowly-set definition, and redefining principles that don’t.

But the true test of patriotism is not in the display of symbols like flags or banners, but rather to support the meaning beyond the symbol. Without that, the symbol is meaningless, and the gesture becomes empty.

In San Diego, California, a teenage girl has spent weeks of persecution from school officials for refusing to cite the Pledge of Allegiance. She considered the pledge to be an empty one and has decided to refuse to recite a pledge to a country she no longer can be proud of. However, faux patriots like her history teacher took it upon himself to humiliate and punish her for her decision, and then claim that she was disrupting class. However, it was the teacher who was doing all the disrupting. Seems the history teacher really didn’t know jack squat about history, or else he would have known that he was on the absolutely wrong end of it.

Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols considered themselves to be patriots. So much so that they were willing to bomb innocent people in Oklahoma City. I don’t know what cause they were fighting for, but it certainly wasn’t for freedom in the American tradition.

Real patriots in America, however, are the men and women who fought, and continue to fight, for the causes that best represent America. The fight for all voices to be heard, not just for what would be considered "mainstream" or "family-oriented." Those that fight, not for an advantage, but for simply an equal chance to succeed or fail.

THAT is what the US flag is all about.

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